Crude Awakening

In the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the worst part wasn’t the shaking, but the fires that followed. At Chevron’s Richmond Refinery some hundred years later, the worst part probably wasn’t the fire, but the flaring that followed.

As America celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day last January 15, Richmond residents held their breath and prayed for westbound winds. A hundred-foot flame at the refinery lit up the early-morning sky, heralding a fire that would rage for hours. Residents living downwind awoke to sirens, and toll-takers on the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge were evacuated. Morning news programs interrupted the “I have a dream” speeches to alert residents to take shelter, and implore drivers to roll up their windows.

Chevron investigated and determined that the fire, which expelled four hundred pounds of toxic gases, was sparked by a weathered pipe that should have been repaired twenty years ago, according to the oil giant’s April report. The pipe, part of an old apparatus used to clean equipment prior to maintenance, had been improperly attached to a holding tank for more than two decades, and had been exposed to chemicals and temperatures it wasn’t designed to withstand. “The refinery has completed all repairs,” spokeswoman Camille Priselac said via e-mail. “We have taken the proper corrective actions to prevent a recurrence.”

Some city officials and environmental justice groups are feeling less than appeased. “It’s pretty egregious,” said Greg Karras, a senior scientist for the Oakland-based nonprofit Communities for a Better Environment who accuses Chevron of consistently cutting corners to save cash. “They knew about the problem but did the shutdown for maintenance anyway.”

Karras, who recently helped his employer assess Bay Area refineries, said the fire occurred during a major maintenance procedure in Chevron’s crude unit that involved shutting down a compressor normally used to recover off-gases and prevent major air pollution. The fire knocked out other compressors, resulting in 35 subsequent days of flaring, and the release of 22 tons of hydrocarbons and other toxic gases.

The analysis Chevron prepared for Contra Costa County accounts for the pollution caused by the fire but ignores that caused by the flaring, which was far worse. Flaring is a way to burn off excess gases and avoid explosions, but is only supposed to be used in an emergency, according to a 2005 Bay Area Air Quality Management rule. Severe asthma attacks, migraines, rashes, and burning eyes, Karras said, are common symptoms among people living downwind of the Chevron refinery during a flaring event.

Excessive flaring can be avoided by installing reliable backup compressors. Each compressor, the scientist noted, costs $5 million to $7 million, roughly equivalent to what Chevron earns in revenue every seventeen minutes. “The community was probably being exposed big-time,” he said. “They covered all that up by not reporting it.”

Through his recent research, Karras learned that flaring had decreased at the four other Bay Area refineries over the past two years. Flaring at the Richmond Refinery, however, rose 80 percent, making it the dirtiest in the region.

Priselac counters that it’s unfair to compare Chevron with smaller refineries. “The Richmond Refinery is the largest refinery in the Bay Area, processing 240,000 barrels per day of crude oil, and that’s about 45 percent more than the next largest refinery,” she says. “We do not flare as a part of routine operations, and will continue to look for emission reductions for maintenance-related flaring. … The refinery is committed to protecting the environment.”

In March, the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health cited the refinery, saying it had “failed to perform testing and inspection” of its piping. The department ordered the company to deal with the violation. Proposed penalty: $185.

Laughable as that figure sounds, the county has not pursued any punitive measures. “Chevron’s been very proactive,” said Randy Sawyer, county hazardous materials director. He added that Chevron’s analysis, which his department monitored, was done in a professional and forthright manner.

The Air Quality Management District, which received a separate “root cause” analysis from Chevron that included some flaring details, announced at a May 16 board meeting that it was issuing the company a public nuisance notice of violation. It’s unclear whether the board will take any punitive action.

No friend of Chevron, Richmond Councilman Tom Butt was quick to voice his frustration over toothless government oversight. “No one in an official position seems to weigh in,” he said. “By and large, people in Richmond are disgusted with Chevron. … Their motivation is to save money.”

The councilman added that Richmond has limited clout in such matters — company officials have met with individual council members, but Chevron tends to “co-opt people.” Butt added, however, that the refinery is mulling an expansion project that will depend on the city for a conditional use permit. This, he said, may give the council some leverage to demand stricter inspections: “I hope the council sticks together on this issue.”

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